I’ve had my eye on Ikenfell for a long, long, time, with its creator Chevy Ray sharing plenty of tid-bits about its development over the last few years over on Twitter. I’ve seen the challenges he faced when creating the game, the way that the mechanics have evolved, and even changes to the visuals… it’s clear that a lot of love and effort has gone into producing this magical adventure.
Well, after years of work and a successful Kickstarter campaign, it has finally launched on PC and consoles. Was it worth the wait? Definitely, even if there is a fair old learning curve in place as you figure out the game’s blend of tactical yet action-orientated combat mechanics.
We’ve seen schools of magic pop up across pop-culture in many different forms over the years, with the titular Ikenfell the learning hub of many students that are versed in the ways of magic. It’s where Safina, a young girl who knows her way around some spells, spends her learning days… until she goes missing, that is.
Enter Maritte, Safina’s younger sister who decides to venture towards Ikenfell in order to find her missing sibling. There is a catch though, with Ikenfell’s world made up of two different types of people: those who can perform magic and those who can’t (known as the Ordinaries). Maritte just so happens to be an Ordinary, meaning she isn’t magically acquainted and is not meant to step foot within Ikenfell itself. However, when some guards block her way in, she exhibits an unknown power that grants her the ability to unleash magic upon her foes. Seems like a sister’s love can be pretty powerful, huh?
With the help of some of Safina’s fellow students and professors at the school, Maritte begins to uncover more about the mysterious and strange going-ons that are occurring behind the scenes at Ikenfell and that are most likely linked with her sister’s disappearance. With a wonderful cast of colourful characters that exhibit all sorts of wildly different personalities, it makes for a pretty delightful quest. Whilst there’s no doubting that Ikenfell’s tale was clearly inspired by Harry Potter, it doesn’t wear its influences TOO obviously and has more than a few sparks of ingenuity and creativity to help it stand out as its own unique tale. It’ll certainly do more than enough to keep players hooked into its narrative, with a wide range of quirky scenarios and twists-and-turns to witness unfold on your quest to save Safina. It’s a lot of fun.
Gameplay-wise, a lot of staple RPG mechanics make Ikenfell tick. You’ll explore a host of different locations that bring with them plenty of wacky sights to uncover, whilst the dungeons you clear are host to an array of different puzzles that wouldn’t feel out of place in The Legend of Zelda. That’s not to say that Ikenfell ever feels unoriginal in this regard; the puzzles themselves are well-structured and throw in plenty of unique twists to the typical dungeon-exploring hallmarks of moving platforms and switch-hitting, so you’ll never get bored exploring its overworld.
The only real flaw I could bring up about the puzzling is that nothing ever feels too complicated to solve. There wasn’t a single moment in my playthrough where I ever felt completely stumped by one of Ikenfell’s conundrums, even if they were creative in design.
Fortunately, the game’s combat brings with it a welcome share of challenges that’ll test even the most battle-hardened of gamers thanks to its mix of tactical battling with a slick sense of timing.
Battles take place on a twelve-by-three grid, with enemies starting off on the left-hand side of the screen and the player’s party (of up to three characters) starting out on the right. The selection of characters that you take into each battle can be imperative to your success, with each of the six available party members having their own strengths and weaknesses that are tied to the spells at their disposal. Balancing out a mixture of offensive and defensive capabilities is vital to surviving each encounter, whilst knowing which elements are more effective against particular foes can make one heck of a difference too. Each character’s position is also important in battle, with certain attacks having a limited area of effect and only reaching specific tiles on the battlefield. It’s all very traditional as far as RPGs go in this sense, so anyone familiar with the genre will feel right at home.
However, whilst Ikenfell has hallmarks in its battling that are commonplace within the genre, it also introduces its own share of ideas to spice combat up. There’s an element of timing in place when attacking and defending for example, with each action that is performed in the game altered based upon the player’s timing and reaction speed. There’ll typically be a noticeable cue within an attack’s animation – when you see it, you’ve got to hit the action button in order to give your own attack a boost or alternatively better defend against an incoming one. The effect of this isn’t insignificant either, with offensive capabilities completely hindered by bad-timing and plenty of hit-points struck away from your own party if you mistime your button-press when defending.
We’ve seen similar mechanics used in other games in the past (including the likes of Paper Mario and YIIK: A Postmodern RPG), but timing your button-presses feels much more significant here. There were occasions where I had close to all of my health bar wiped away in encounters because of bad timing on my part, which could admittedly be a little frustrating – especially when you’re facing off against an enemy or boss encounter for the first time and haven’t quite learnt the cues of their attacks just yet. However, as you adjust more to the game’s combat mechanics and start to clue yourself in a bit more on the moves of your party and enemies, it adds an extra level of excitement where you’ve always got to be ready to react to the action that’s taking place. There’ve been plenty of RPGs in the past where you just pick your moves and watch as events play out… that isn’t the case in Ikenfell and any player who isn’t ready to mash a button in a timely manner to respond to in-battle actions is going to have a bad time. It makes for a really good battling experience, even IF there are some minor moments of frustration to be had when you do find yourself caught off-guard along the way.
The enemies themselves can be pretty challenging in their own right too, with a steep yet fair difficulty curve in place in Ikenfell to really keep players on their toes. Thankfully, there’s a levelling-up system in place that’ll ensure your skills will match those of your foes… well… provided you keep battling throughout the game, that is. The encounters in Ikenfell have to be initiated by interacting with enemies in the overworld, with random encounters a no-no here. It’s a good thing when trying to get your way through dungeons fuss-free, but also means it’s easy to find yourself underpowered if you don’t face off against enough foes on your adventure.
Those who like tinkering with their party’s setup will be pleased to see there’s plenty of different equipment to use that’ll alter your stats in various ways, whilst gems you collect across the world can also be exchanged in order to grab some powerful gear that can really help you out. With your party having their own strengths and weaknesses, equipping them with the gear that best suits their capabilities can make a real difference in-combat. Alternatively, you can utilise the gear that best suits your playstyle, with a satisfying level of experimentation found in the game that caters to all different types of players.
There’s a lot of charm and variety to be found across Ikenfell’s adventure, whilst the fact that it’s so neatly presented makes it even easier to appreciate. The school itself is full of vibrant wonders to uncover, with the old-school visual style proving creative and visually pleasing across the entirety of the roughly eighteen-hour campaign. Add to that a delightful music score that was brought to life by the composers behind Steven Universe and you’ll quickly find that Ikenfell’s sights and sounds live up to the magic found within its wacky world.
Ikenfell offers a wonderful journey for players to embark on, with the charming narrative and creative combat mechanics coming together to make for a memorable escapade. There’s plenty of variety to be found across the game world too, whether that’s when exploring the countless dungeons, battling the monsters that run rife throughout the magical school, or just when tinkering with your party setup – there really is plenty to uncover in the game and it ensures that you definitely won’t grow bored as you see the lengthy tale through to its conclusion.
It does have its flaws, most notably with the easy-to-solve puzzles and the learning curve of the battle mechanics, but for the most part Ikenfell’s adventure is a charming treat that RPG fans are sure to enjoy.
Developer: Happy Ray Games
Publisher: Humble Games
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC